By Elisha Hodge, MTAS Legal Consultant
On a frigid morning in January, I found myself making coffee for a very distinguished older gentleman with an extremely thick accent. For those of you who know me, that might come as a surprise, since I do not drink coffee, know how to make coffee, and I strongly believe that if someone wants coffee, he or she should make his or her own. However, this was a task I was a happy to fumble my way through, because I was making coffee for Dr. Henry Fribourg. Fribourg was visiting 1610 University Avenue after being invited by the IPS Diversity Committee to talk with staff and educate us about not only his experience during the Holocaust, but the Holocaust in general. After all the technology was tested and everyone was in place, Fribourg and his wife Claudia were introduced, and he began telling us his story of tragedy, peril, escape and perseverance.
Fribourg calls himself a “Holocaust escapee,” not a survivor. He and his immediate family escaped occupied France in 1942 and spent the next several years in Algeria and Cuba before immigrating to the United States in 1945. He explained the history leading up to the “Ha’Shoah” or “The Catastrophe” that we call the Holocaust. He then told a very detailed and intricate story of near tragedy and ultimate survival fit for a T.V. movie. When Fribourg was 11, he, his mother, who was pregnant at the time, his sister, and a hired driver set out in a borrowed car to escape into Spain. The gas tank in the car that they were in began to leak and his mother sent him out on foot to a nearby blacksmith. It was during this journey that he was spotted by a German pilot who used machine guns to fire on him. On the pilot’s third attempt at firing him, Fribourg threw himself into a ditch and the pilot gave up.
He also described an incident that occurred as he and his family were sailing from Algeria to Cuba. As they were sailing, a German submarine came out of the water and the soldiers on board stopped the ship that they were on for an inspection. After searching the ship that included several Jewish passengers for hours, the German soldiers returned to the submarine without any incident. According to Fribourg, they were searching for weapons, not people.
When asked how his family was able to manage financially during the occupation, he credited his father. He said that his father was a great mathematician who made several good investments prior to the occupation. When it was decided that the family would attempt to escape France, he said that his mother handed him a box wrapped in material and told him that no matter what, he was never to let the box leave his possession. According to Fribourg, the box became his constant companion. And while he never saw the actual contents in the box, he said that he knew that there were stocks and bonds in the box that allowed his family to pay for clothes, food, transportation, housing and bribes until they reached the United States in 1945.
In addition to the struggle that Fribourg and his family faced in France and Europe during the occupation, he also shared the struggle that they faced in both Algeria and Cuba. While in Algeria, Fribourg was expelled from school for no reason other than the fact that he was Jewish. For years, Fribourg struggled with his disappointment over what occurred in Algeria and after writing to the French government on several occasions about how he was treated, he received a letter of apology from the Ministry of National Education in France, some 60 years after he was expelled from school. As for how Jewish people were treated in Cuba, he simply said, “they tolerated us,” because the Jews who came there had money to spend.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Fribourg shared how the tragedy that his family endured from 1940 until 1945 turned into triumph when they immigrated to the United States. However, he also emphasized that it is critical that we “zakhor” or remember what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945, not only to honor the memories of the millions of Jews, gypsies, mentally challenged, individuals who identified as LGBTQ+, clergy, blacks, Ukrainians, Polish, dissenters, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered by the Nazis, but to ensure that nothing like the “Ha’Shoah” ever happens again.
Being in Fribourg’s presence and hearing him tell his story in his own words, reinforced for me the power of educating people though story-telling. I know that I will always “zakhor.”